Dead Serious

This memoir by an undercover cop who posed as a contract killer may blow your mind

I was working my way through the massive Clint Eastwood box set the other day, 35 Films 35 Years, when I began to wonder about our collective fascination with crime stories, both real and imagined.

Harry Callahan (Dirty Harry), played with a grim determination by Eastwood, is the anti-hero—the man we charge with cleaning up the scum of society while ignoring him (at best) or treating him with open contempt (at worst). We expect results yet whine at the methods.

We're hopelessly schizophrenic in our relationship with cops. We don't hesitate to curse, lie, cheat or flirt to try to weasel out of a speeding ticket. Yet when the slightest little thing goes bump in the night, we expect the entire police force to be there, armed to the teeth.

As long as we have criminals—and Arizona has always attracted its fair share of human garbage—I, for one, am glad to have cops around like Jack Ballentine. This long-time undercover police officer has peeled back the lid on the bizarre world of Arizona crime in a fine true-crime memoir, newly out in paperback, called Murder for Hire.

For 15 years, Ballentine played the role of "hit man," or what is more formally called a murder conspirator in Phoenix. His job was to hang his shingle out in the criminal underworld, to let the scumbags know he was available to kill people at the bargain price of anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000. His undercover identities ranged from "biker gang warlord, to Mafia hit man, soldier of fortune, disgruntled Vietnam vet, and Aryan Brotherhood prison convict."

What is sad and freaky is how he developed his undercover characters: His muse was the television, because to the average criminal-TV-viewer mind, if it's on the tube, it's real—which makes impersonating a bad guy that much easier. He also spent a lot of time with a forensic psychologist, trying to understand the mental illness driving many of his clients. It's crazy, creepy, wacko stuff.

Ballentine looms over people at a massive and intimidating 6-foot-5, 285 pounds. He benches 405 with ease, rarely shaves, bathes less often, never washes his clothes and has hair down to his ass. He rides a scooter (a Harley, to the noninitiated) cannibalized from recovered stolen motorcycle parts—giving him instant street cred. His "colleagues" are strippers, drug-users and other discarded human flotsam and jetsam. Nights are spent making the rounds of the titty bars and other places less elegant, trolling for "clients."

In Arizona, it seems, everyone wants to kill someone.

The first "hit" we learn about is a Scottsdale commodities trader who wants to torture and kill men and boys, then taste their body parts. When he describes what he wants to do, he gets aroused and pulls out his foot-long penis while he talks and strokes himself. Not having the balls to do the actual killing himself, he seeks to hire Ballentine's alter ego to do the blood work. The guy is busted immediately.

There are many other stories here, each as grim and compelling and hair-raising as this one.

Ballentine went to the UA, then applied to the Phoenix Police Department. He was a street cop for a couple of years when he got tapped to work undercover on stolen property. He had the knack, and soon, he slipped into the hired-killer role.

He had a rough time early on, watching some of his fellow cops and even a role model or two implode under the stress. When you work in the dirt, it's very difficult not to get dirty. What got him through was his innate sense of morality. His mother was a pillar of strength, and after her death, he would use her memory to constantly remind himself of what kept him moving forward—the idea of doing the right thing for the right reasons, and trying to help those who can't help themselves.

Happily, as a counter to all the filth, he describes meeting the love of his life and raising two young sons to be decent young men.

Murder for Hire is the personal story of an utterly decent man who wanted to make the world a better place. He discovered he had a special talent for living a life of lies and fantasy, and he used it for good—to capture people who wanted others dead.